Nothing came easy for the North Carolina women’s soccer team in its ACC Championship semifinal match against Duke on Thursday.
Red cards issued to both teams set in motion a slow, grueling 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, which was ultimately decided after senior right back Emily Moxley sent the ball past Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones in the eighth round of a penalty kick shootout.
The Tar Heels served Duke its worst loss of the season back in September, dominating in a 3-0 rout in Durham. The Blue Devils came out looking much different on Saturday, playing in a new formation and putting the pressure on North Carolina in the early goings with a high press.
Still, neither team gave an inch in the first half of play. Duke star forward Michelle Cooper broke past UNC’s back line twice with well-placed through balls, but each time, the Tar Heel defense was able to wrestle the ball away from the dangerous scorer.
“What makes anyone vulnerable when they play against Duke is the caliber and athleticism of their front runners,” head coach Anson Dorrance said.
In the 45th minute, UNC midfielder Talia DellaPeruta was issued a yellow card for a push from behind, followed by Duke’s Maggie Graham being issued an immediate red card for flashing retaliatory middle fingers.
Forced to play down a player, Duke came out in the second half in a new shape. Cooper, the lone Blue Devil forward, lingered around the midfield line, while two lines of four parked themselves in front of the goal — making it nearly impossible for UNC to break through and get off quality shot attempts.
“Never underestimate the difficulty in this game to play against a team that sits back,” Dorrance said. “It's very difficult to break down. You have to have incredibly sophisticated players making exquisite decisions consistently with incredible execution.”
Later, in the 73rd minute, DellaPeruta was issued her second penalty, earning herself a red card and making the match a 10-on-10 affair.
While Duke had resigned itself to playing for the tie, UNC’s offense tried to work from outside the penalty box and off of corner kicks to sneak one past Jones. However, the veteran goalkeeper blocked every shot and snagged nearly every cross she faced.
After two full 10-minute overtime periods went much the same way, the teams sent their penalty kick lineups onto the pitch for the climactic finale.
UNC goalkeeper Emmie Allen had never faced a penalty shootout in her collegiate career, but the redshirt first-year said she wasn’t particularly nervous. To prepare for the matchup, Allen studied the Duke players’ previous penalty kicks and learned where they had liked to go.
Allen stopped the first penalty kick of the night, sent towards the center of the goal by Duke’s Katie Groff. The next miss didn’t come until the potential clincher by UNC first-year midfielder Bella Sember, who put the ball just in reach of Jones.
With the score tied, the onus was back on Allen to make another stop. In the eighth go-around, she made it happen with a diving save against Duke’s Mackenzie Pluck.
“I just trusted my instinct on Pluck’s kick and dove full power to my left,” Allen said.
Next up was Moxley, a lanky forward-turned-emergency-defender that possesses plenty of offensive skills.
“I did feel the pressure,” Moxley said. “But I just went up there and I picked a side.”
Moxley lined up and unleashed the ball towards the right side of the goal, burying it into the net past Jones, who had reacted too late. The UNC players dogpiled Moxley, the culmination of a hard-fought, high-stakes victory against their conference rival.
Dorrance, who is not shy in his disdain for penalty kick shootouts, said that while he was proud of Allen and Moxley for their heroics, he would have been just as satisfied if the result did not favor the Tar Heels.
“I'm just so glad that the soccer Gods rewarded us by having us advance,” Dorrance said.
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